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CRASH COURSE

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DAYTONA'S FIERY FINISH WAS ANOTHER LESSON IN HOW FAR NASCAR HAS FALLEN

FORTY YEARS before Sunday's Daytona 500—or, to be precise, 39 years and 364 days before—NASCAR was a largely regional sport that got a fortuitous break. The 1979 edition of the Great American Race was the first nationally televised flag-to-flag 500-mile stock car event. The weekend of Daytona, bad weather hit just about everywhere. (Four of the five Great Lakes froze over, an unprecedented occurrence. Atlantans were photographed skiing down Peachtree Street. It even snowed in the Sahara for the first time in recorded history.) In those precable days, that meant people were stuck inside with only a handful of channels to watch.

Viewers saw a battle that came down to the final lap. Cale Yarborough, the three-time defending NASCAR champ, and Donnie Allison, a leadfoot who never seemed to catch a break, pulled away from the field. As the two good ol' boys, who had tangled earlier in the race, hurtled down the backstretch, their cars got together again. They banged doors before Yarborough hit Allison hard enough to take them both out. ("He crashed me so I crashed him back," Cale explained later, providing me with the title of a book I wrote on the '79 season.) That opened the door for Richard Petty to snatch the win.

But the real excitement came after the checkers flew. Allison's brother Bobby, who finished 11th, stopped off on his cool-down lap to give Donnie a ride. Bobby and Yarborough exchanged words, and soon they exchanged punches in the infield—as CBS's cameras rolled. It made for great theater, and it was a hell of an introduction to NASCAR for a lot of snowed-in sports fans, one widely credited with sending the circuit on an upward trajectory.

Four decades later stock car racing is in need of a similar bump. Daytona, the first and biggest race of the season, is supposed to be the sport's pinnacle, but Sunday's 500 felt like an afterthought, overshadowed by NBA All-Star weekend and a couple of baseball players who remain free agents. I thought I'd head to my neighborhood watering hole and talk to some NASCAR fans, see what kind of buzz there was. Alas, of the 38 screens in the front of the bar, the race was being shown—unwatched—on two, the same number as an extreme downhill speedskating competition. (No shame there—that sounds kind of cool.) From 2015. (Oh. Never mind.)

Of course, the sport is suffering in more traditional metrics than "local man's inability to find fans in New Jersey." The TV ratings for last year's Daytona 500 were the worst ever (9.3 million viewers). NASCAR doesn't release attendance figures, but the swaths of empty seats at tracks that were regularly packed in the early 2000s indicate a sad state of affairs for what was being touted 20 years ago as the nation's fastest-growing sport. In 1999, NASCAR signed a TV rights contract, which went into effect in 2001, that brought in more money—$2.4 billion over six years—than Major League Baseball or the NHL had earned with their most recent deals.

There's no lack of theories about what happened since 2006, when ratings peaked at nearly 20 million viewers. A failure to develop stars fans could feel passionate about, whether loving or loathing. Incessant tinkering with cars in an effort to introduce parity. A points system designed to goose interest that requires an understanding of linear algebra. Cookie-cutter tracks that sacrifice character for amenities. Increased sponsor influence smoothing the rough edges that drew many to the sport in the first place.

So which one? Consider this a corollary to Occam's razor: When there's not one obvious answer, there probably isn't one obvious answer. It's a lot of things, not the least of which is that, when it comes to challenging the big four sports, the next big thing often isn't. (Ask soccer. Ask lacrosse. Wait 10 years and ask e-sports.)

That's not to say that there aren't easily identifiable granular problems with the product. The end of Sunday's race was interminable. Four crashes in the last 13 laps led to two red-flag periods, which meant it took an hour and a half to complete the last 25 miles, a pace that would win the New York City Marathon, but not by much.

In the 1979 race, when Allison and Yarborough wrecked, there was no collateral damage. The closest car was more than a mile away. When Paul Menard hooked the rear bumper of Matt DiBenedetto and sent him into the backstretch wall, 19 other cars got caught up. (He crashed me. And him. And him. And him....)

Why was the field on Sunday so bunched up? NASCAR wants close racing because sponsors pay millions to have their logos on camera. But packs are crash-prone when drivers are feeling frisky and boring when they're not.

That issue isn't too different from the cookie cutters. Gone are interesting little backwoods tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, replaced on the schedule with 1.5-mile ovals in large markets, part of NASCAR's desire to modernize since the turn of the millennium. But in doing so they have alienated a base that had fallen in love with a less corporate product. The sport has been fighting battles to please fans on two fronts and losing them both.

On Sunday, as the drivers restarted with 10 laps left, Jeff Gordon, who was calling the race for Fox, said it was one of the best Daytona 500s he had ever seen. But then barely 30 seconds later, half of the field was careening down the backstretch in a mass of twisted metal and sparks. In that half minute we were first reminded of what the sport is capable of—and then how far it has to go to catch the big four.

And maybe how that never should have been a goal in the first place.

A LIFE REMEMBERED

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NEWSMAKERS

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GAMEPLAN

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FACES IN THE CROWD

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